Public Media Arts Hub

Sheryl Lee Ralph delivers rousing speech after winning Emmy for role in Abbott Elementary


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: At the Emmys last night, Sheryl Lee Ralph won best supporting actress for her role in the groundbreaking ABC series "Abbott Elementary," which is taking on the issues confronting public education and equity with humor.

Her acceptance speech itself won rave reviews, as she sang an a cappella version of "Endangered Species" by Dianne Reeves.

Amy Poehler, Actress: And the Emmy goes to Sheryl Lee Ralph.




Judy Woodruff: How about that? Not your typical acceptance speech.

So, Geoff Bennett spoke was Sheryl Lee Ralph last spring for "PBS Weekend" as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Geoff Bennett: It's a workplace comedy focused on a group of dedicated teachers at an underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia.

The approach has provided new ways of looking at tough issues and refocusing the audience's attention on enduring problems.

I'm joined by veteran actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays Barbara Howard, an elementary school teacher who has seen it all on the show. She's also known for her breakthrough roles as Deena Jones in Broadway's "Dreamgirls," which earned her a Tony nomination for best actress in a musical. She later became a cultural fixture thanks to roles in TV shows like "Moesha" and films such as "Sister Act 2."

Welcome, Sheryl Lee Ralph. It's great to have you here on the "NewsHour."

Sheryl Lee Ralph, Actress: Thank you. It's good to be here.

Geoff Bennett: We should say, the show is ABC's first comedy to quadruple its rating since its premiere. Why do you think the show is resonating in the way that it is?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: There's something about the way this show, with the use of entertainment, comedy, is talking about something that's on everybody's minds.

And that is teachers and the education, or lack thereof, of America's children.

Actress: Boul.

Actors: Boul.

Actress: Right. Sometimes, it's spelled B-U-L, which is interesting.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: What is going on in this classroom?

Actress: Hey, Mrs. Howard. I'm just teaching the kids some sight word.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: You're abandoning the phonics principle that these children need. This is a classroom, not a hoagie stand.

Actress: Oh, boom. Hoagie.

Actors: Hoagie.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Abbott Elementary is all about paying attention to the needs of some of the most underrated, underappreciated people in America, America's teachers.

Actor: Young bouls are so disrespectful.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: They deserve more. They deserve more respect. They deserve more support. They deserve to be paid more.

More should be given to those who mold the hearts and the minds of America's children. Do not take what it is they bring to this country, to their communities, to our cities, do not underestimate that, because, when you underestimate that you underestimate the possibility of America's children.

Geoff Bennett: It strikes me that comedy is an interesting way to look at these issues and elevate them. And people don't really even know that they're learning something as they're watching the show.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Absolutely. That is the magic of Quinta Brunson, our young creator. Her mother was a teacher.

So she went to school with her mother for years .She saw the inward workings of schools, like Philadelphia, where she's from.

Actress: I was in the gifted program too.

Actress: What were you gifted at? Being annoying?


Actress: No.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: People laugh, they laugh, they enjoy it, and then they have conversations that last five hours once the show is over. I mean, comedy is an amazing thing. It deserves more respect, just like teachers.

Actress: How's going with a new program?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh, it's a little hard to understand. But I'm getting the hang of it.

Actress: Just somehow lost my crypto wallet. But you come from a different generation. And so it'd be totally understandable if you were having trouble with it.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Are you kidding me? I'm Ms. Tech. I love tech. Shop at the App Store. Got a Hotmail. I once even rode in a Tesla.

And I was like, oh my god, I love this girl. I love her. She and I had actually met on the set of another show called "A Black Lady Sketch Show." And she spent a great deal of time just looking at me, just observing me. And it was wonderful some 18 months later to get this call of an offer for this show that she had. And she just wanted me to, "Would you please just meet all the people, Ms. Ralph?"

Geoff Bennett: What do you think, given your vantage point in your career? You have opened so many doors for young actresses and producers. And you have folks like Quinta Brunson, Issa Rae, and Lena Waithe, who are not only stars of their own projects, but creators and producers of them.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: You know what? It has been a long and rocky road to get to this place in an industry that, when I was younger than they are now, was very quick to tell me that there was no place in it for me, that it could only be a side hobby, because there was so little that would be made available to me, how would I possibly make a living out of it?

But I had such incredible mentors that came before me.

Actor: They just don't make men like Sidney Poitier anymore.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: They most certainly do not.


Sheryl Lee Ralph: Sidney Poitier, who we recently lost, cast me in my very first film, taught me so much about what it was like to be in an industry that was going to make it difficult for you.

I love what I do so much. I know the heavy lifting that went on and took place to get us to this beautiful time.

Geoff Bennett: Wow.

This past December marks 40 years since the legendary Broadway production of "Dreamgirls," for which you were nominated for a Tony, as we mentioned. When you reflect back, how do you sort of characterize the impact of that role on your career and the culture of generally?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: There's something about the lyrics in the song. Every girl has her own special dream. And those dreams are about to come true, if you just open your eyes to what's in front of you.

From then until now, I say that all those little girls, look in the mirror, open your eyes, and love what you see, because you are your dream come true.

Geoff Bennett: Sheryl Lee Ralph, thanks so much for your time. And, again, congratulations on the success of "Abbott Elementary."

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Thank you. I am Barbara Howard.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.